We arrived in Peru with a little fuss as Bolivian protesters had blockaded the border to vehicles. Our bus to Cuzco was stranded on the Peruvian side of the border and we had to catch taxis and then walk for 3 – 4 kms past the protesters to get to the border crossing. It all seemed peaceful and Jess and I, along with hundreds of other travellers, crossed into Peru without problems.
Welcome to Peru
When we arrived we discovered that the rainy season we had been told would exist in Bolivia (and didn't) was firmly ensconced in Cuzco. Cuzco is South America's oldest continuously inhabited city and was the centre of of the Incan civilisation. Following, it's capture by the Spanish it in 1533 it slowly lessened in importance and became something of a colonial backwater until Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911. Now with the massive tourist influx it's a pretty happening place and has ten hawkers on every corner (a negative), a great central plaza, lots of beautiful churches, great food and plenty of night life. We spent four days there, one kept inside by the rain, one kept inside with a hangover and two exploring the city and surrounding ruins.
Plaza de Armas in Cuzco
Cose up of the Cusco Cathedral and rare blue sky
Although the tourist maps show the city has historic sites, museums and Inca ruins galore we didn't think much of any of them other than Sacsaywaman, a huge ruined Incan complex up in the hills above Cuzco. What you can see today is only about 20% of the original structure as the Spanish conquistadors tore down much of the fortress following the capture of Cusco, using the stones to build large buildings such as the cathedral in the city centre. The remains however, still impress, with the quality and size (some of the rocks are huge) of the remaining walls being the main draw card.
Mike, Jess and Saqsaywaman in Cuzco
A massive wall stone at Saskaywaman
There seemed to be a significant amount of maintenance going on while we were there, to such an extent that it made me question what level of restoration had taken place, or was taking place, and therefore what was authentic and what was being rebuilt for the purposes of tourism.
These ruins and the workmen made me suspicious about what was new and what was old
There are a variety of ways to travel from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail, which is undoubtedly the most famous route, is closed for maintenance in February each year so that was out of the question and the other alternative treks didn't appeal given the level of rain fall.
A direct train is another option however there are a number of other Incan sites in what is known as the Sacred Valley which the train bypasses. Organised tours allow you to visit all the ruins in a day but Jess and I decided that we would steer clear of tour groups, organise our own transport and spend a night at each location exploring the nearby Incan Ruins and then catch the train from the last village to Machu Picchu.
Over a couple of days we saw a ruined hilltop Incan citadel called Pisac perched up on almost sheer cliffs above a beautiful valley, a series of man made salt pans used to extract salt from a mineral spring since Incan times, a series of concentric circular agriculture terracing, believed to be an Incan research “facility” for testing crops and another old Incan fortress and temple near the village of Ollantaytambo. Plus, we found an amazing restaurant in Olantaytambo which we ate at three times because the food was so good.
Mike and a baby condor at an animal sanctuary
The Pisac sun temple soaked through
There are photos of all the sites in the gallery, but the most impressive despite visiting it in the pouring rain was Pisac. If you do visit Cuzco I would definitely make the effort to head out to this little town, Jess and I had no expectations and were blown away by the size of the site, its position on the cliffs and the amazing agricultural terracing below it. Plus, as an added bonus, the village of Pisac has an excellent market selling all the llama merchandise you could possibly need.
After exploring the Sacred Valley at our leisure we jumped on a train from Ollaytaytambo to Agua Callientes, the super touristy little town that sits directly below Machu Picchu. As an aside, if there is something they do well in Cusco and Machu Picchu, it is clipping the ticket – catching the train to Machu Picchu, the entrance fee, the accommodation and the food all cost a fortune relative to the costs elsewhere in Peru. However, I have to say that it is worth it when you get there.
The location of Machu Picchu is amazing, both for it's natural beauty and its inaccessibility. Perched as it is high above the narrow valley floor, on a saddle between two peaks and with a tumultuous river running at the bottom, it's no wonder that it wasn't rediscovered until 1911.
Jess in a postcard
The Sacred Square, Intihuatana and Wayna Picchu
The first 400 people in the gate each morning are allowed to climb up above Machu Picchu to Wayna Picchu, a hill overlooking the main site which is topped with more ruins and gives great views. To ensure we were one of the first 400, we got up at 4am and walked to Machu Picchu rather than catching one of the buses which didn't start leaving until 5:30am. Although it subsequently turned out that catching the bus would have still got us in the first 400 and saved us some hard slog.
Jess and the Sun Temple
Although there are plenty of guided tours available, we decided to go without a guide and with that in mind had bought a book on Machu Picchu in Cusco. When we opened the guide it turned out to be complete rubbish, with about 75% of it focused on the flowers of Machu Picchu, not really a passion of ours, however, so as not to be wasteful we took a number of photos of the flowers as well as the ruins. Still, self-guided but with a better book is definitely the way to explore the ruins – the tour groups we saw were all on a specific schedule and the number of people in each one would have made it impossible to go at your own pace or take decent photos.
Some of the wonderful flowers explained by our guidebook
We got lucky with the weather with blue sky, sunshine and a few white clouds. We were in the gates at 6:30am, booked in to climb Wayna Picchu at 10am and were able to spend the early part of the morning exploring the main site with very few other people. The early arrival and the 10am Wayna Picchu climb was definitely the way to go, as by the time the trains from Cusco arrived and the main site filled with noisy tour groups, Jess and I had already finished looking around the main site and had lined up to climb Wayna Picchu. The path up was incredibly steep, via a narrow set of stairs set into the rock and although tiring, the view at the top was definitely worth the effort.
Michael on top of Wayna Picchu, great view - note the snaking road up to Machu Picchu
Jess exhausted giving Wayna Picchu the fingers after making it to the top
I've put a couple more of photos of Machu Picchu below with captions for you to look through and there are more in the gallery. Next we head back to Cuzco for a night and then we head to Lima, from there we are not quite sure of our next destination. We want to go trekking in Huaraz in northern Peru but the rainy season might mean that walking at this time of year is not possible / pleasant. If Huaraz is a no go, we will probably try to cross into Columbia by flying to Iquitos in Peru and then catching a boat down the Amazon to Leticia in southern Columbia. What a cliffhanger...
Little clouds covering parts of the Ruins
Viscacha on a rock in the ruins
Residential area stretching towards Wayna Picchu
Another Flower of Machu Picchu
Baby Llamas - Machu Picchus lawnmowers
Jess standing on the agricultural terracing, Wayna Picchu behind